From Qumran to New Jersey: Fragments of history from the Dead Sea Scrolls

The Very Rev. John Meno, secretary to the late Archbishop Athanasius Yeshue Samuel, tells of the Dead Sea Scrolls fragments’ sojourn to a Syrian church in Teaneck, N.J. (Jerry Szubin)

By Rebecca Boroson and Josh Lipowsky, Jewish Standard

TEANECK, N.J. — Throngs of Jews walk past St. Mark’s Syrian Orthodox Cathedral in this suburban New York city every Shabbat on their way to synagogue, unaware that the church is the caretaker of an ancient and precious piece of Jewish history.

When Archbishop Mar Athanasius Yeshue Samuel arrived in New Jersey in 1949, he brought four scrolls and fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which include the earliest known texts of books of the Bible. Although the scrolls were later sold to an Israeli archeologist, Samuel kept the fragments.


To this day they remain under the care of the Eastern Diocese of the Syrian Orthodox Church, which has its headquarters in Teaneck.

“His eminence was really firm that he wanted [the fragments] to stay with the church because it’s been a privilege for our church to have those fragments and to make them again available,” said the church’s Very Rev. John Meno, who served as Samuel’s secretary from 1971 until the archbishop’s death in 1995.

Archbishop Mor Cyril Aphrem Karim, Samuel’s successor, is the official caretaker of the fragments, but could not be reached for comment.

One fragment is on loan to the Milwaukee Public Museum —  the first time the fragments have left Teaneck since they were returned in 1995 following a 25-year exhibition at the American Bible Society in New York City. (The fragments have been lent over the years to libraries and museums.)

Concerned for the fragments’ security and proper care, Karim personally escorted them to Milwaukee. A number of archeological organizations have approached the church about selling the fragments.

“I hope we’ll always be able to keep them and maintain them as they should be properly kept, and that they will always be available for scholars, old and young,” Meno said.

The story of how the fragments ended up in Teaneck dates back to their initial discovery in 1947, when the first scrolls were found by the Bedouin in a cave in Qumran, near the Dead Sea. More than 900 were eventually discovered in the Judean desert, in 15,000 fragments.

As Hershel Shanks, the founder of the Biblical Archaeology Society and the editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, tells the tale in his 1992 book “Understanding the Dead Sea Scrolls,” two Bedouin had arranged with Samuel to bring some of the scrolls from Bethlehem to Jerusalem. It was July 1947.

“The tide of violence between Jew, Arab, and Briton,” which would culminate in the War of Independence, “was swelling. Jewish terrorism, mostly directed against the British, was beginning to be heavily felt in certain Arab areas. … In this atmosphere Samuel became anxious when the Bedouin and their scrolls had not appeared by noon.”

What happened? They had been turned away by a monk who saw, in Shanks’ words, that the scrolls they brought were “[p]robably old Torahs from somewhere, but filthy and covered with pitch or something else that smelled equally bad. These he steadfastly refused to allow within the monastery walls, still less into His Grace’s presence as the bearers demanded.”

The Bedouin had gone back to Bethlehem, and it took two weeks before they and the scrolls could return to Jerusalem and Samuel, who bought them, according to Shanks, for what amounted to $97.

Samuel then sought authentication and scholarly help. Eventually he made his way to the United States in 1949, to collect funds for Syrian Orthodox Christians affected by Israel’s War of Independence a year earlier. In 1952, the church appointed Samuel patriarchal vicar to the United States, and five years later he was named the Syrian Orthodox archbishop of the United States and Canada and established St. Mark’s in Hackensack before it moved to Teaneck.

Shanks, who was instrumental in widening scholars’ access to the scrolls, said that Samuel was unable to sell the scrolls. He exhibited them in the Library of Congress and then advertised them in The Wall Street Journal in 1954.

(The ad has achieved a certain believe-it-or-not fame. Headed “The Four Dead Sea Scrolls,” it went on to say that “Biblical Manuscripts dating back to at least 200 BC are for sale. This would be an ideal gift to an educational or religious institution by an individual or group.” A box number at The Wall Street Journal was provided.)

The sale of the four scrolls to Israeli archeologist Yigal Yadin for $250,000 was arranged through a front man, Shanks says — the scholar Harry Orlinsky of Johns Hopkins University posing as a “Mr. Green.”

Shanks, who in his 1992 book called the scrolls “the greatest manuscript discovery in the 20th century, certainly as concerns biblical studies,” wonders whether Samuel knew that he was selling them to Israel.

In a telephone interview from Rehovoth Beach, Del., Shanks says the only reason Yadin got them so cheap is that Jordan, which controlled the West Bank when the scrolls were discovered, asserted a claim to them.

While the proceeds of the sale were to go to Samuel’s church, the legal papers were poorly drawn and the U.S. Internal Revenue Service wound up with the lion’s share.

Meno grew up hearing stories that the church housed the scrolls, but they had long been sold when he came to Teaneck in 1971. Still, as Samuel’s secretary, he frequently saw the fragments.

“It’s an awesome thing to be able to hold in your hands documents of that age,” he said, “documents of the recorded word of God, documents that have played such a crucial and important role in biblical research and scholarship since they’ve been discovered. It’s a very special thing.”

The archbishop, Meno said, created a trust fund upon his arrival in the United States to ensure that the scrolls could be properly tended.

“He hoped the scrolls would remain here in the United States in proper housing and would be made accessible to scholars and to anyone who wanted to view them,” he said.

St. Mark’s, named for the monastery in Jerusalem built on the site where the apostle Mark is thought to have lived, plans to build a new facility in nearby Paramus, where it owns five acres on Midland Avenue. No construction start or completion date has been set, but the proposed facility will include a section to display the fragments.

“God willing, if the center works out in Paramus, the scrolls will be on display there under proper circumstances,” Meno said.